by:  David Gehl

David Gehl has served as officer-in-charge and head of the Seed Increase Unit at Ag Canada’s Experimental Farm for the past 25 years. At the Indian Head, Saskatchewan farm, he’s overseen the production of more than 1,000 breeder plots and obtained more than 600 Breeder Seed Crop Certificates for varieties of more than three dozen crop kinds. The varieties propogated and distributed by the Seed Increase Unit under his direction represent a significant portion of pedigreed seed production, especially in western Canada.

In addition to his duties for Breeder Seed production, Gehl coordinates plant breeding winter nursery activities for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

(April 8, 2015)  The Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) recently proposed to create a new class of lower quality milling wheat for a stated objective of protecting the integrity of the Canada Western Red Spring (CWRS) class.  However, the introduction of this new class may actually undermine CWRS wheat by facilitating the introduction of higher yielding, lower protein American HRS varieties.  Prairie wheat producers and others in the Canadian grain industry should give this development careful consideration.  Will western grain farmers actually benefit from introducing a new class of lower quality milling wheat?

In the world marketplace CWRS wheat has long enjoyed a well-earned reputation as a premium quality milling wheat.  Because of its versatility and ability to improve end-use quality in blends with lower quality wheats it is in steady demand and almost always at a premium price.  The integrity of CWRS and other Canadian wheat classes is protected by a grading system administered by the CGC and by a variety registration system which have, until recently, restricted commercial production of milling wheat varieties with lower-quality outside the parameters of prescribed market classes.

A combination of the dissolution of the Canadian Wheat Board single-desk, several years of adverse growing conditions resulting in quality challenges and an oversupply from the bumper crop of 2013 has resulted in lower prices paid to prairie wheat producers.  In turn, end-use buyers have complained of erratic quality and in some cases have turned to alternative suppliers.  The introduction of a new class of milling wheat has the potential to further disrupt the Canadian wheat production and marketing system, a system which has served the interests of producers and end-users so well for decades.

Recent privatization of the CGC’s system of grading export shipments and a lack of reserve capacity in the Canadian grain handling and transportation system have added to the problems.  Farmers are experiencing the freedom to market their CWRS wheat for lower returns than under the CWB single-desk.  Their resultant anger has been deliberately misdirected at the railways, a traditional scapegoat.  Meanwhile the profits of the grain companies are at record levels.

No one can blame prairie producers for their anger.  They are producing a premium product and often earning a discounted price.  Under these conditions the opportunity to produce higher yielding American HRS varieties will be attractive to many in the short term.  Some of the outcomes are predictable and include:

1) the area planted to American HRS varieties on the Canadian prairies will grow dramatically as long as higher quality CWRS varieties do not earn offsetting price premiums for growers;

2) increased volumes of lower quality spring wheat resultant from wide-scale production of American HRS varieties will add to reserve capacity problems in the Canadian grain handling and transportation system;

3) Canadian seed companies with distribution rights for American HRS varieties will enjoy high sales and profits for several years;

4)  a profusion of new spring wheat varieties will place pressure on the Canadian variety registration and provincial variety testing systems; and

5) Canadian public sector wheat breeding programs will be at a significant disadvantage to American public sector and transnational private sector breeding programs which currently focus on the development of higher yielding American HRS wheat.

     If the ultimate objective is to dismantle the Canadian wheat system and replace it with a North American system dominated by transnational grain and crop-life companies the introduction of a new marketing class of spring wheat is the next logical step. By doing so western Canada will sacrifice its international market niche supplying the highest quality milling wheat in return for competing with American and other wheat growing regions that are much closer to port, have lower land and labour costs, better climates, and whose ports are thousands of kilometres closer to end-use customers.

Comments are closed.